Yesterday I took part in a panel discussion at Lewis and Clark College’s current conference on “Reimagining the Good Life.” Our panel’s subject was the relationship between economics and religion, in attaining “the good life.” I opened with the following three-minute statement, which I’m sharing with readers as my “Reflection” for this week:
I remember the first time I began to understand that our economic system could be questioned, that it was not just a given, but actually the product of human choice. I was a social work student, back in the ’70′s, and I heard a speech by David Gil, a professor from Brandeis. “Who owns the air?” he said. “Who owns the water?”
A word about the ancient god of the free market system, Adam Smith. When Smith is quoted regarding the “invisible hand” of the market, what is conveniently forgotten is his assumptions about the conditions necessary to make free markets work. Smith assumed that we would operate on a small scale and so would know the character of the people we trade with. He assumed that our financial dealings would exist in the context of our values. Instead, Smith’s writing is used to justify the mad pursuit of shareholder profit, which is held to be holy and untouchable.
If we consider ourselves religious or spiritual, we know that we must see and enter the suffering of the world, else our own spiritual wounds will never heal. The question comes, though, how do we enter the suffering of the world? Churches are most comfortable with deeds of charity alone. I recall the words of Archbishop Camara of Brazil: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.” There’s nothing wrong with giving soup to hungry people–but the more difficult and dangerous way is systemic change, to get at the system that causes the suffering.
Wendell Berry looked at the derivation of “economics” in his book Home Economics. Originally the word meant “activity involved in caring for the home.” Now it is a sophisticated discipline, supposedly a science, grounded in mathematical equations instead of human values.
Do I, a minister, know enough to speak about economics? Am I a citizen? We cannot leave this crucial area to the “experts,” who have overlooked the poor among us, saying “that’s just the price we have to pay for prosperity”; who have called the bleeding of the earth an “externality”; who have been enamored of formulas in books and have not been concerned that children are hungry. No, we can’t leave economics to the experts, because economics is all about how we divvy up resources and therefore it is fundamentally a moral issue.
We wonder that we can do in the face of forces which seem immovable. Well, these forces are in fact subject to change. Human beings have made choices, and different choices can be made. We can say no, and no, and no. We can say no, until they hear us. And we can say yes, here is a new way. It’s time now. Let’s move there together.